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Guide to migraine: causes, symptoms and treatment

Guide to migraine: causes, symptoms and treatment

All about migraine - the most common form of headache and the third most common ailment in the world
migraine and its symptoms
Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K

Do you suffer from migraines? Have you been diagnosed with the disease? Rest assured that knowledge about migraine will help in dealing with its associated pain and discomfort.

What’s a migraine?

In layman’s terms, “Migraine is unbearable.” It is a primary headache disorder accompanied by excruciating, throbbing pain—generally on one side of the head.

The worst part about a migraine attack is that it could last for hours or days. Along with migraine comes nausea, vomiting, extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

Migraine is also the most common form of headache. As per estimates, around 1 billion people from across the globe suffer from this neurological disease. In fact, migraine is the third most common disease in the world.

A migraine, generally, strikes early. It often begins at puberty. The most affected are those aged between 35 and 45 years. Migraine is recurrent and generally life-long. Mostly, women are its victims because of hormonal influences.

Why do you get an attack?

According to medical experts, a migraine is caused by the activation of a mechanism deep in the brain that leads to release of pain-producing inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels of the head.

The character of a migraine

A typical migraine attack is a headache, which could be of moderate to severe intensity. It is one-sided, pulsating in quality and gets aggravated by physical activity. It generally lasts for hours and sometimes two-three days. If you are lucky, you will be hit by migraine only once a year. Some suffer every week. In children, migraine is of shorter duration.

What are the causes of migraine?

It is a long list. Experts call migraines tricky. It is not easy to pinpoint the causes behind a migraine. Several factors or combinations of factors could be behind a migraine. It differs from person to person. The commonly cited causes are:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Hormonal changes in women
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Sudden changes in weather or environment
  • Overexertion (too much physical activity)
  • Tobacco
  • Caffeine or caffeine withdrawal
  • Skipped meals
  • Medication overuse (taking medicine for migraines too often)
  • Alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Aged cheeses
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Some fruits and nuts
  • Fermented or pickled goods
  • Yeast
  • Cured or processed meats
  • Bright or flashing lights
  • Loud noises
  • Strong smells
  • Medicines

Beyond these, indigestion or even eye strain caused by the use of wrong lenses in spectacles can lead to migraine.

Who’s most vulnerable?

Experts have identified three groups more likely to suffer from migraines:

  • Women: Women are three times more likely to suffer from migraine than men.
  • Migraine runs in the family: Experts say migraines are genetic. If your family members have migraines, you are more likely to suffer from the disease.
  • Medical conditions: Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, sleep disorder and epilepsy are likely to cause migraines.

Symptoms of a migraine

Experts have divided a migraine into four phases. However, a patient may not go through every phase each time she is hit by a migraine.

  • Prodome: It’s the precursor to migraine. It begins 24 hours before the actual migraine. During this time, you will notice early signs and symptoms like mood swings, repeated yawning, rise in urination and food cravings.
  • Aura: As the name suggests, the patient literally sees bright lights or zig-zag lines dancing in front of her eyes. The patient feels muscle weakness. She also feels that someone might have touched or grabbed her. It is like a hallucination.
  • Headache: The pain starts slowly and becomes severe with time. The patient’s head is hit with throbbing or pulsing pain. Interestingly, experts say sometimes migraine is not accompanied by a headache. Other migraine symptoms are increased sensitivity to light, noise, and odours, nausea and vomiting and pain during movement, cough, or sneeze.
  • Postdrome: The pain is gone now. However, it leaves the patient exhausted, weak and confused after a migraine. It lasts at least for a day. People generally suffer from migraine in the morning. They wake up with terrible pain and it’s enough to ruin the whole day. However, some have fixed migraine attacks. Like some women are hit by a migraine before menstruation. Some people suffer from migraines whenever they are under stress.

Know if you have a migraine

Often people confuse between a headache and a migraine. A migraine is one of the many types of headaches.

According to the International Headache Society, to be diagnosed with the migraine disease, a person must have had at least five attacks of headache lasting 4–72 hours. Moreover, the attacks must have had at least two of the following characteristics:

  • Unilateral location
  • Pulsating quality
  • Moderate or severe pain intensity
  • Aggravation by or causing avoidance of routine physical activity

If it’s a migraine attack, the person will have either nausea and/or vomiting or photophobia and phonophobia.

Migraine treatment

According to the US-based National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke there is no cure for migraines. Thus, the whole process of treatment involves relieving symptoms and preventing future attacks.

The common drugs prescribed by doctors for a migraine are triptan drugs, ergotamine drugs and pain killers (such as paracetamol). Doctors always advice people with migraines to take medicine sooner for effective results.

Some common tips to bring relief during a migraine attack are: close your eyes and try to rest in a quiet and dark room, put an ice pack or a wet cloth on your forehead and drink water or juice.

However, the emphasis is always on bringing lifestyle changes to prevent migraines. Also useful are stress management strategies like exercise, relaxation techniques and biofeedback (it uses electronic devices to control certain body functions like heartbeat, blood pressure and muscle tension). The patients are asked to make a note of migraine triggers. They should avoid certain food and medicines and have proper sleep every day. Migraine patients with obesity are asked to lose weight.

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Share Your Experience/Comments

3 Responses

  1. I am suffering from it for several years. I’m taking a lot of medicines. But I couldn’t find an exact therapy to cure this. Can you help me?

  2. I think there is a deep connection of GUT health and migraine. Considering the fact that Alzheimer’s and dementia have strong connection to the gut health and insulin resistance, it is highly likely that migraine too has a root in our GUT.

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